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Momentum: The Academic and Economic Value of a 15-Credit First-Semester Course Load for College Students in Tennessee

By: Clive Belfield, Davis Jenkins & Hana Lahr


Many students fail to complete college because the pathways they take through college are not optimal. One example is that their initial course loads are often too low. When students take too few courses in the first semester or academic year, it negatively affects their “momentum.” Compounded over semesters, these students accumulate insufficient credits to graduate within the conventional time frame.

This paper explores the academic and economic consequences of taking higher or lower credit loads. Using student-level data from the Tennessee Board of Regents, the authors estimate differences in award completion and credit accumulation across students according to their first-semester and first-year credit loads. Ordinary least squares and propensity score matching estimation are used to adjust for differences in student characteristics. Using an economic model, the authors estimate improvements in cost per completion (i.e., cost efficiency) and additional spending by students who take 15 credits in their first semester (“momentum students”) compared with those who take 12 credits.

The results show strong positive academic impacts on credits and degree completion for momentum students in community colleges and four-year colleges. These impacts are financially valuable to students: Over their time in college, momentum students pay 4–14 percent less per credit and 9–19 percent less per degree in tuition and fees. These savings also produce gains for colleges, because more tuition revenue is generated as more students persist. The academic and economic effects are even stronger for students who sustain momentum through the first year.